Working in advertising and being Brahmin makes it incredibly exceptional for Sudip Battacharya to be a regular bicycle rider. I met up with him through my friend Laura Golbuff, another American based in London writing her PhD on bicycling who was in India this spring.
Sudip let me borrow a bicycle and ride in with him on his 8 km “suburban” Delhi bicycle commute. I had to get up at 6:30 am and take an auto rickshaw to the sparkly new metro to Gurgaon that was only 3 weeks old and still not completely open all the way into downtown Delhi.
The sidewalk ended straight off the exit steps from the metro. A row of cycle rickshaws waited for fares. Sudip picked me up in a car though and brought me back to his apartment where he set me up with a nice hybrid bicycle (a Trek or Giant?). He took his folding bicycle and wore a helmet and we both brought a bottle of water since it was already 25-30 degrees C by 8 am.
Traffic was pretty busy and most roads on the route were 3-4 lanes each way. But for much of the ride there was nearly a full lane open on the left side that cars didn’t seem to bother with. India drives on the left, so far left is the “slow” lane. It had sand and other debris like rocks in it as usual for shoulders and cars did occasionally come in to turn or pass but much of it was free for most of the time.
There was the odd cow here and there too, since cows in Hinduism are holy and roam the streets. However, they mostly stayed off the side of the road. The saying goes, likely true, that cows are treated better than pedestrians and bicyclists and have much lower accident and fatality rates.
I was given the option of the faster more dangerous route or the longer, nicer route. Valuing my life, I opted for the nicer, longer option. Given the results, I’m pretty happy I made the choice I did.
This option required making a right turn across 4 lanes of traffic. If you want to cross a few lanes of traffic to make a turn, it’s best (eg, only possible) at a stoplight. However, you can tap the trunks of cars and ask them to move forward to let you through if they are too tightly bunched. If you did that in the US, they would probably yell at you for touching their car but here they very politely got out of your way. Amazing!
At one intersection, a woman in a nearby car (clearly also fairly well off herself) mouthed something like “what [the heck] are you doing?” toward Sudip from behind the window of her air conditioned car. He mouthed back “going to work!” to which she clucked back, “very nice!” with a giant smile, positive head bobble and fingers in a circular A-OK sign.
Just after this, we dodged a few cows before heading onto what was apparently “just a big [8 lane, divided] road” and not a highway according to Sudip. Sure looked like a highway to me. But we stuck to our lane and it actually felt pretty ok, aside from the fact that traffic was moving quite fast.
The last couple of km we were on a small “2 lane” road. Lanes are somewhat interpretive however since there are multiple sizes and types of vehicles plying the roads ranging from cars, to 3 wheel auto and bicycle rickshaws, motorscooters, trucks, bicyclists and pedestrians all vying for the same road space. This negotiation is a barter in which basically the smallest vehicle should and largely does always yield to anything larger. Depending on the size of vehicle, there could be 3 or more vehicles sharing the same “2 lane” street.
When the space is tight, you often get pushed around more. However, being white and/or high status bicycle riders it was clear that drivers were giving us a wider berth than the majority of lower caste delivery bicyclists. Yet I still felt it was more dangerous on the smaller slower road than I felt riding on the 8 lane “highway”.
When we got into the office, one of Sudip’s co-workers noticed us with our bicycles and commented that it was great that we had ridden in on bicycles and expressed a desire to follow suit. It has been my experience that there is a latent aspiration among middle and upper class professionals in India to ride bicycles, at least recreationally but that the infrastructure and safety angle is a major barrier.
Upon entering the office, we both popped into the bathroom for a makeshift towel shower- wetting a towel and cleaning up the sweaty parts, changing the shirt and switching from sandals to shoes and socks.
Generally, I would rank the ride sketchy but doable if you are a bit brave. Let’s give it a 3 out of 10. Certainly better than bicycling in downtown Delhi, which is sheer madness and very spread out. With some better infrastructure in strategically placed locations, I think you could encourage a few working professionals to start riding. This would elevate the status of bicycling and hopefully begin to create a virtuous cycle.